The Real Life Center is located on 92 acres shared by Dogwood Church that stretches across the city limits of Tyrone and Peachtree City. GBMB screen grab
TYRONE — Not long after founding Dogwood Church, Pastor Keith Moore decided he wanted to establish a more long-term approach to benevolence ministries. It was a mandate by God, he concluded, that needed to be taken more seriously in serving the poor.
Moore was associate pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville when he agreed to become the founding pastor of the church New Hope would plant in Tyrone, Dogwood Baptist Church. The church met at Huddleston Elementary School in Peachtree City and then McIntosh High before getting its own campus in 1994. In 1999 the church founded the Real Life Center, which ministers to its community through a variety of programs. The largest of those is providing fresh fruits and vegetables grown on the property.
“Each week we serve about 300 families,” said Cathy Berggren, a member of Dogwood. Starting as a volunteer with the ministry at the beginning, she became its executive director in 2003.
Another 15-20 individuals – each one representing a family – take part in training that looks to better equip them in financial planning, she added. “We talk through a plan of action to create some stability for them” she said. In addition to Dogwood, numerous churches across denominations assist the Real Life Center in one way or another.
Recently Lorna Bius, Mission Georgia mobilizer, visited the Real Life Center in highlighting Georgia Baptists’ Project: Well Fed initiative for July. Through it, churches are encouraged to find local ministry partners in helping address hunger needs in their area.
“Even though we have a lot of great agriculture [in Georgia], a lot of our neighbors don’t have access to it,” said Bius. “This is a great way to minister in the community.”
Finding a coach and partners
Moore gives a lot of credit to First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., with helping the Real Life Center get started.
“I called them and they became a great coach,” he remembered. “It was a very clear prompting from the Lord that said, ‘This.’”
Dogwood’s associate pastor at the time, John Hamblen, served as Real Life’s first director and Berggren’s predecessor. “I can’t say enough good things about John and First Leesburg in those early years,” Moore added.
Real Life started with two small rooms – one to dispense food, the other for clothes – in a modular building that was otherwise used for Sunday School classes. When a volunteer found out supermarkets would provide bread getting near its usage date, that added to the food ministry. Soon, other local stores matched those with other contributions.
The church’s move to 92 acres in 2005 opened up the possibility to expand the ministry. But, it’s been an extended education in how best to serve the community, said Moore.
“This has been 21 years of learning how to do it well,” he expressed. “Our philosophy is ‘Let’s give a hand up, not a hand-out.’ We share the gospel and help them indiscriminately. I like to say that we’re not faith-based, we’re gospel-centered.”
COVID-19 has caused some changes in operations. Meeting have-to-be-done with social distancing in mind. But the Real Life Center continues to also educate in the areas of cooking, nutrition, writing a resume, developing a budget, and other skills. A two-point strategy focuses on 1) helping at the point of crisis to create stability and 2) an investment strategy where goals are set for where that individual or family will be in a year.
“When you see churches working together, that’s pretty powerful,” said Berggren. “A lot of this is just being a good neighbor. It’s life-changing when you see your value in Christ.”